Friday, March 06, 2009

Booknote: A Perfect Red

I just finished reading Amy Butler Greenfield's book A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Color of Desire. This book had been on my "to be read" (TBR) list for a while. I added it to the list when I was in Houston, but it was one of those things I never quite had the time. Not that I have that much time now, but when I opened my ILLiad account here, I decided to start ordering some of those books on the TBR list. Yes, there are a good number of books on the TBR list that my library does not carry, but thanks to InterLibrary Loan I can order them from other places. Anyhow, let's go on and talk about the book.

For those who like microhistories, this will be a good book. In a nutshell, this is a history of red color dyes. Most of the book deals with cochineal, a little insect which is used to get the dye. We go from the Renaissance and the conquest of the Americas to the modern day where synthetic dyes emerge, relegating cochineal as a dye to almost extinction. It is a story that involves spies, colonial adventure and enterprise, and learning about how dyes are made. This is the kind of topic that we often take for granted; we know we can buy clothes in colors or get food coloring, but how often do we think about where those colors come from? Then there is all the symbolism behind the color red.

The prose is a bit slow. Unlike other microhistories, this is more of a straight historical narrative, but there are some interesting moments, usually involving the spies trying to learn the secrets of the dyes from the nations owning them. What I mean is this is not a book like, for example, Kyle Jarrard's Cognac: the Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit. Jarrard has a much more personal style in the prose, which draws the reader in. Here is my blog post on Jarrard's book if anyone is interested. I am not saying the difference is a bad thing, just that the books have a different style. I also found interesting the little details about the cochineal, and how over time many different people speculated about its nature: was it an insect? was it a plant? was it something else entirely?

Overall, I think readers of the microhistory genre will enjoy this, but I also think any history reader in general will find it interesting as well. For me, having read and studied the history of Latin America and its relation to Spain, this book provided a different perspective. I mean, for example, I did not know that after silver, cochineal was actually the second biggest and most valuable product shipped from the Americas to Spain during the colonial time. No one ever mentioned this to me in classes I took, nor did I see it in other history books. So this book fills a significant gap in the history, which makes it a valuable one to read.

Other books with similar appeal (that I have read and can recall quickly now):

Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, The Turk, and A History of the World in Six Glasses (Note on this one here).
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. My blog post on this one here.

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